Hungarian I Am Not

yodaRecently a magazine writer mailed me to fact-check a story about Yoda in the Star Wars series of films: that his strange syntax was inspired by the speech of a Hungarian technician on the set of The Empire Strikes Back.

I don’t know Hungarian, I’m not a Star Wars aficionado, and I wasn’t there when Empire was filmed. Time to admit that I couldn’t help?

No, of course not. Our job as academic experts is not simply knowing stuff; it’s using what we know to find other stuff out. I had an answer for him very rapidly.

The story he had picked up is presented as follows on a Budapest film-production company blog:

George Lucas wanted to give Yoda a more exotic sound to his speech, so he had a Hungarian technician working on The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars II) set translate Yoda’s lines into Hungarian, then back into English, retaining the Hungarian syntax. Thus “I will go” becomes “Go, I will” with the stress of the important information coming at the beginning of the sentence, as it does in Hungarian.

I find it somewhat improbable on practical grounds. Empire (1980), directed by Irvin Kershner, was the first film featuring Yoda. The story of its production is fairly well known. The first script was written in February 1978 by Leigh Brackett, but Lucas, who wrote the original story line, disliked it. Lucas did two rewrites himself, but then handed over to Lawrence Kasdan.

Kershner began filming in Norway in March 1979, with Kasdan’s script presumably done. Filming moved to the Elstree Studios in London in the spring of 1979. I suppose in principle a Hungarian-speaking technician there could have had a conversation with Lucas (if he was around) and influenced some late changes to Yoda’s lines with director Kershner’s approval; but it seems implausibly late for such developments.

And the linguistic evidence magnifies my doubts. As I said, I don’t speak Hungarian; but it doesn’t take much research to discover that (oddly) the one linguistic claim made in the Budapest blog post is false. “I will go” does not take the word order “Go, I will” when translated into Hungarian. Hungarian omits unemphasized subject pronouns, and often uses the present tense for future time reference, so the usual translation would be the lone present-tense verb, megyek. The closest Hungarian counterpart of English willwould be the auxiliary verb fog. It’s not all that common, I’m told, but according to this source, if you add it you get fogok menni (“I-will go”), not menni fogok (“go I-will”).

Hungarian syntax fails to resemble Yoda’s mangled English quite generally. The basic order of clause constituents in Hungarian (as in English) is Subject-Verb-Object (check out the Wikipedia article on Hungarian, or experiment a little with Google Translate’s English-to-Hungarian capability).

Hungarian allows preposing a phrase to the beginning of a sentence to give it emphasis, as English does too: In the right context you can say That, we cannot allow, or Change it he did. But those aren’t typical orders in either language. They are used in special discourse contexts. The key feature of Yoda’s English is the copious use of preposed objects, verb phrases, and predicative complementsregardless of the discourse context.

Yoda’s “Patience you must have” has Object-Subject-Verb order: It is You must have patience with the direct object preposed. “Lost a planet Master Obi-Wan has” is the English sentence Master Obi-Wan has lost a planet with the verb phrase preposed. “Powerful you have become” has the predicative adjective powerful preposed.

Some such orders would be permissible in either Hungarian or English in some discourse contexts, though not in typical translations of isolated sentences. Yoda uses them promiscuously and unselectively.

Mark Liberman pointed out in this Language Log post that there are other patterns too: Yoda’s word order is somewhat chaotic. There may not be any simple generalization governing it. But this much is clear: You cannot obtain Yodic by translating isolated sentences into Hungarian and then arranging the English words in the Hungarian constituent order.

I told the magazine writer that the story made little sense linguistically and was probably a myth. He replied: “Line I have cut.”

Yoda would not approve; “Write or write not; there is no cut,” he would say.

[My gratitude to two friends in Budapest, Jeremy Wheeler and András Kornai, for their advice.]

Original story can be found here on The Chronicle Of Higher Education website.

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